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A lamp that reigned on Christmas

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Back at Thanksgiving, I asked my young niece Olivia if she’d ever seen in action the Rain Lamp in my mother’s living room. It rains glycerin drops down catgut strings while a Victorian lady swings in jerky motions inside the make-believe shower.


“I think so,” Olivia said. “Maybe.”


Her uncertainty underlined for me the difference in children now and then. When my father bought the Rain Lamp — we called it that with unfailing consistency and in uppercase — a Christmas gift for Mother, I was 10. And I had never seen anything as wonderful as a lamp with moving parts and convincing raindrops. I would stand and watch it until somebody turned it off.


Kids today, on the other hand, have seen teddy bears that have larger vocabularies than most Americans and computer games that let them crash cars and hit virtual baseballs. They are not easily impressed with moving parts. Neither was my mother.


My mother hated the Rain Lamp. I’m not sure why, except it was her practice each holiday to make sure presents were more practical than romantic, ours being a family with no budget for frills.


It was a little like the scene in “A Christmas Story” when the movie father wins a sexy leg lamp and the mother finds it unbearably tacky. At our house, the Rain Lamp did not fit into Mother’s Early American decorating scheme. And it was somehow absurdly excessive, even for the 1960s.


The Rain Lamp became a prominent symbol of my father’s annual failure at buying practical gifts for his wife. There was the coat with fur trim. Back to the store it went. There was the string of pearls. Ditto.


The Rain Lamp remained, I think, because even my mother was fascinated with its mechanics, though she never admitted it. It still stands five decades later on a table in the dining room, where nobody eats but nonetheless hallowed ground.


I think it survived because of its fantasy feature, which makes one want to write a story about the smiling maiden so smitten with life that she continues to swing and dream in a downpour. Either that, or Daddy lost the receipt.


As children we always sided with our father, because we knew in our hearts that Christmas is all about tacky and fanciful and you worry about the bills in January. Heck, we sided with him about everything.


Mother was never better in her bad-cop role than at Christmas. And my father, never really known for frivolity, at Christmastime became a somewhat jolly elf.


He bought and hid the cocker spaniel puppies and assembled the bikes. He was The Man.


Despite Olivia’s ambivalence, I should have insisted on turning on the rain and letting that lamp flood the dining room with good memories. I did not.


What an event it always was to see the thing in full glory, the “Devil beating his wife” light, with the raindrops that looked a lot like hot teardrops falling. The Rain Lamp has to be a metaphor for something in childhood, though I’ve not yet figured out what.


With my father gone now, Christmas will be a more solemn occasion. No Lionel trains hauling a pack of his cigarettes around the tree, or Davy Crockett hats, pellet guns or puppies. No more Rain Lamps.


To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.

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